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Watchers keep streets safe

March 19, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Whether they're peering through their kitchen windows or walking the streets looking for troublemakers, members of downtown watch groups don't take crime in their neighborhoods lightly.

There are 11 Neighborhoods First and Neighborhood Watch groups in Hagerstown, half of which keep an eye on parts of downtown, said Hagerstown Police Department Lt. Margaret Kline.

We Care Downtown Neighborhood Watch has 40 members, including about 10 active watchdogs, who live between Antietam Street and Washington Street and between Summit Avenue and Cannon Avenue in Hagerstown. The group was formed two years ago.

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Tom Lowman, chairman of We Care, said the group watches for crime and looks for businesses they feel contribute to quality-of-life problems. He said We Care members watch for troublemaking tenants, and landlords who they feel don't do a good enough job of screening tenants. They worked to get a neighborhood bar closed after police were called there repeatedly, he said.

Captains on every block in the We Care neighborhood watch for crime. Calls to report criminal activity are forwarded to Lowman, who said he has the cell phone numbers of every Hagerstown Police Department officer working streets in his neighborhood.

The watch members don't approach people involved in criminal activity.

"We don't go up to them and say, 'Are you peddling drugs?' That's a good way to get shot," Lowman said.

Bob Nigh, president of Fairground Neighborhood Crime Watch, said he takes calls from members in his group. He said that makes things easier on the police, for whom he is the sole contact in his group.

The Fairground group covers North Mulberry Street, North Locust Street, the Fairground and Wayside Avenue.

Chris Yambor, president of Historic Heights Community Action Group, said members look out for suspicious activity in the Summit Avenue, South Prospect Street and Antietam Street neighborhood. Yambor said they are not as focused on crime as on improving the community.

Yambor's group is a Neighborhoods First group, which Kline said is the type of group she recommends neighborhoods start because they not only watch for crime but also work on community projects such as cleaning up alleys and streets.

Lowman said his watch group has been asked to become a Neighborhoods First group, but he doesn't want to take his focus off crime prevention.

"They take the trash off the streets, and we'd rather have the two-legged trash off the streets," he said.

Thelma Ritchie, 70, who's lived in Hagerstown for the past 61 years, is a We Care block captain. She said she is concerned that businesses in her neighborhood don't take crime watching seriously.

"They want the people's money, but they don't want to help keep the area safe," Lowman said.

Ritchie, Nigh and Lowman are concerned that some downtown landlords don't do their part in helping improve the quality of life in the area.

"Downtown will never come back to what it used to be. It's the different generations," Ritchie said. "I'd like to see it without people standing on the street corners."

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